Former state Rep. Mike Doogan used to quote a saying about political disagreements that goes something like this: Never wrestle with a pig — you both end up covered in mud, and the pig just thinks you're having fun.
This advice came to mind as I read Democratic Rep. Les Gara's recent Dispatch column criticizing me and other Republican legislators. At the risk he'll think we're having fun, however, I'd like to respond to a few of the muddiest claims Gara made in that column and in the recent legislative session.
Gara claims he and minority Democrats took a responsible position on the state budget last session. The fact is, they responded to low oil prices and the resulting revenue drop by playing "budget blackmail." They refused to vote for a smaller budget that paid for essential services until they got millions in spending added back on non-essentials like public TV, online homework help and state-run preschools. Spending more when your income drops is not responsible.
Gara accuses the Republican Majority of "ducking its head in the sand." The fact is, Gara repeatedly denied fiscal reality, arguing desperately against almost every Majority-sponsored budget cut in committee and on the House floor, saying he could only support cuts to waste and inefficiency. When low oil prices cut state income by two-thirds, we don't have the luxury of cutting only where it doesn't hurt.
Gara claims he and minority Democrats offered a long-term budget solution in the form of "modest" oil tax increases. The fact is, they offered punishing changes in oil tax policy that wouldn't close the deficit, but would decimate and drive away an industry that has paid for nearly all state government for more than 30 years. Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs may get you one good last meal, but you'll be hungry a long time afterwards.
Gara repeats the tired lie that Republicans want to cut education. The fact is, under Republican leadership, state funding for public schools has been rising for many years. At more than $1.2 billion a year, it's now our second-largest expense. Three years ago, the House Majority wrote and passed House Bill 278 to increase public school funding by $43 million in 2015, $32 million in 2016, and $20 million in 2017. It is responsible now to hold the line on this huge part of our budget, especially when Alaska's public schools deliver among the worst results in the nation.
Gara claims he wants a "modest" income tax on Alaska businesses earning high profits. The fact is, Alaska has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the nation – just one reason among many why Alaska consistently ranks at the bottom in listings of "business-friendly" states.
Gara bewails state "subsidies" to our biggest oil companies. The fact is, the big three producers receive tax credits for operating losses they can redeem only against taxes on future oil production. And the smaller producers attracted to explore for new oil in Alaska used their credits to bankroll the kind of work that has led to new discoveries like Caelus Energy's estimated 6-billion-barrel oil find on the North Slope. Snatching these promised credits away is pushing smaller companies to the edge of bankruptcy, and destroying Alaska's reputation as a stable place to invest.
Gara trots out tired liberal rhetoric seeking to inflame resentment by "the 99 percent" of common folks against "the 1 percent" of rich elites. The fact is, this class-envy sloganeering is the same battle cry under which the Occupy Wall Street movement hurled bottles and rioted in the streets in protest against capitalism – the economic system at the heart of America's and Alaska's prosperity – which has no place in Alaska.
Gara castigates Republicans for allegedly deceptive campaign advertisements. The fact is, shadowy groups like Together for Alaska (funded by Democratic bagman Robert Brena, union head Tom Wescott and the AFL-CIO's Vince Beltrami) have made the demonstrably false claim that a part-time Republican legislative staffer was campaigning door-to-door on state time. Lying is apparently acceptable if it's for a good cause – i.e., campaigning against Republicans.
Gara claims Alaskans should trust the state's future to an untested, unnamed cabal of his Democratic friends, a couple moderate Republicans, and a gaggle of so-called Independents. The fact is, these "Independents" are characters like Beltrami, a longtime Democrat and union boss, now thinly disguised as an Independent. A quick look at campaign finance disclosures shows Beltrami and other so-called "Independents" — Joe Hackenmueller, Jason Grenn and Dan Ortiz — are bankrolled by the same loyal Democratic donors who've been trying to buy political power in Alaska for years.
Many Alaskans hoped a Hail Mary vote for "Independent" Bill Walker in 2014 would protect their Permanent Fund Dividend and avoid an income tax. How's that working out? Walker broke his campaign promises to cut the budget 16 percent, not to support income tax and not to reduce the PFD. He also declared a hiring freeze to save money, but then made numerous crony contract hires at up to half a million dollars a year. Alaskans literally cannot afford to place their blind hopes in more of this kind of "Independent" politician.
I can understand why Gara is frustrated. While he and a few other Democrats have represented reliably liberal districts for a decade or more, they've never earned the support of a majority of Alaskans statewide. So, like the minority Russian Bolsheviks of 1917, Gara and his "Independent/Democratic" allies have inflamed every hot-button issue they could, hoping to incite resentment against the establishment so they could swoop in to seize the reins of power amid the rubble of revolution.
If that happened, Republicans wouldn't be the only ones to wind up covered in mud – and Alaskans wouldn't be having any fun at all.
Rep. Dan Saddler is in his third term representing Chugiak-Eagle River in the Alaska House, and is vice chair of the House Finance Committee.